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(Corrects number of seats held by Liberals and New Democrats to 113 from 125)
By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Six years after Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper merged two right-leaning parties and took power, the leader of the centrist Liberals, the biggest opposition party, is musing about a coalition of his own.
Although the idea has merit on paper at least, talk of a deal with the smaller left-leaning New Democrats has triggered a fierce debate among Liberals that has only underlined the weakness of the party, which lost power in early 2006 and continues to trail in the polls.
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff's comments about a coalition are also likely to serve as a propaganda gift for the minority Conservative government, which says the New Democrats under leader Jack Layton are extreme tax-and-spend left wingers.
"This is going to make a wonderful target. You think you're voting for Michael Ignatieff but in fact you're going to be voting to make Jack Layton minister of finance," said Tom Flanagan, former chief of staff to Harper.
"I think the Conservatives will have a field day with the possibility of a socialist coalition ... this will help them nail it down," he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
The last election was in October 2008 and by rights there should not be another vote any time soon, given Harper's insistence that Canadians want Ottawa to focus on the economy.
But suspicions remain that if Harper sees enough of an advantage building up over the Liberals he will repeat his tactics of September 2008 and move to have Parliament dissolved, triggering an immediate election.
Tellingly, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told the CTV network on Sunday that "when (Canadians) see that the opposition hasn't allowed a single piece of legislation to pass the House of Commons yet, that is a sign of concern for sure".
Ignatieff's remarks seemed both premature and presumptuous. Before taking over the party in December 2008, he spent much of his time as an academic and broadcaster and his relative political inexperience still shows.
To form a coalition, the Liberals would have to at least match the Conservatives in seats won in the next election, whereas polls put them around six percentage points behind in popular support. The Liberals and the New Democrats now have a total of 113 seats in the House of Commons, compared with 144 for the Conservatives.
"If the Liberals came second in the next election, it would be a very weak leg to stand on to form a coalition government because the Conservatives would still have more seats," pollster Nik Nanos told Reuters.
This does beg the question of why Ignatieff told the Canadian Press over the weekend that a coalition would be "perfectly legitimate" and he could "make all kinds of electoral arrangements work".
Ignatieff told reporters on Monday that "I'm not going to deal with those cards until they are dealt".
It is not hard to spot signs of Liberal unhappiness with Ignatieff's performance, and a few have even talked about bringing back former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who led three successive majority governments before retiring in 2003.
Nanos said the recent coalition in Britain could make the idea of a coalition more acceptable to Canadians in principle.
The Liberals and the New Democrats have enough in common to make the idea of working together plausible. Indeed, the two parties had an informal power-sharing deal in the 1970s.
Yet in Canada, the word coalition is sensitive these days.
Shortly after the October 2008 election a crisis erupted, prompting the Liberals and New Democrats to agree to work together with the support of the separatist Bloc Quebecois.
The three parties would have won a confidence vote had Harper -- who railed against what he called a socialist separatist coalition -- not had Parliament suspended.
Just to muddy the water further, Ignatieff had clearly not warned Layton before he made his comments.
"You know there's a lot of things that Mr. Ignatieff said and ... I always want to double check what the most recent thing is," Layton told reporters, while saying he was always ready to work with other parties.
Conservative strategist Tim Powers said the talk of coalition reflects the Liberals' failed leadership.
"The only consistency about this at the moment is that it seems to undermine Michael Ignatieff ... at the end of the day he doesn't look as though he's in charge," he said.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway